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The Weird and Wonderful Sideshow Art of Fred G. Johnson

If you’ve been to The Museum of the Weird, and we hope by now if you’re reading our blog you’ve at least looked into it, you know we’re pretty into the aesthetic of the classic sideshow. The trick was always to come up with a bunch of freaky looking art with exaggerated claims and proportions to entice the marks, er, customers, into a tent or series of tents to see a whole series of ‘freaks’, curiosities, and performers for one price. Sideshow banners festoons the walls of The Museum of the Weird (by Mark Frierson) and we even have original art in the classic style for our exhibits that you can buy in postcard or poster form. But where did this style begin?

The lurid and colorful banners meant to draw in the unwary were the most prominent form of visual art found in circuses in the first half of the 20th century. In America, from the 1870’s to the end of the sideshow era in the 1960s, the banners were almost ubiquitous. First used in England during the 1800s they are the oldest surviving form of fairground decoration.

Recently the style has been re-examined as a form of folk art painting, being featured in publications such as Folk Art, Connoisseur, and Applied Arts Magazine. The original works have since entered the art world as a valuable collectible for enthusiasts for early folk art.

One of the most sought after sideshow banner creators was Fred G. Johnson who worked for 65 years creating banners for circuses from the tiny to huge, from small traveling shows to Ringling Brothers. Like most of these artists, he came from no traditional art background, having learned in his spare time from an artist he was doing odd jobs for. Now his works hang in major museums and have been auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York. Quite a voyage for the work of a man who started out cleaning out paint pots.

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